The Art of Healing Broken Hearts

In my off-hours, I bonded with a patient over video games. It was fine until it wasn’t.

Illustration: Kimberlie Wong

For privacy purposes, any potentially identifying details in this story have been altered.

HeHe suffers from a rare cardiomyopathy and has been hospitalized for weeks. He awaits a transplant. His heart is failing.

He’s just 23 years old.

I’m a resident physician on the heart failure service. It’s known as “the rock garden” because it houses chronically ill, complex patients. He’s been admitted for inotropic therapy, which involves medications that help the heart pump more effectively.

The hospital is a miserable place to be in general, doubly so when you’re young. The Wi-Fi reception is lousy, rendering the video game console he brought with him useless for online gaming. Still, our mutual love of gaming helps us forge an unlikely friendship.

After finishing rounds and my work for the day, I join him for some two-player games — Madden Football and Call of Duty — since he can’t play online. He’s hooked up all of his gaming equipment to the small TV in his room. We play hard, neither one of us conceding a match.

Competing against someone is an interesting means of getting to know them. In a strange way, rivals often have a more intimate understanding and appreciation of each other than friends do. We’ve been competing against each other almost every day. He usually wins, easily.

“Come on, Doc,” he grins, “I’m trying to make you better. Learn from me!”

“I don’t think gaming is what I’m supposed to be learning from you,” I reply, frustrated as I lose yet again.

He seems genuinely happy when he wins and I have to smile. I want to help him, badly.

Competing against someone is an interesting means of getting to know them.

As we play, we talk about everything. He tells me about his dreams of going into advertising, specifically for Snickers; he has a killer idea for a jingle. I didn’t know “Snickers” could rhyme with so many words. I tell him that, once upon a time, I used to write for a gaming magazine. He says this is hard to believe, as he finds my gaming skills lacking. I tell him I’m a better writer than a gamer. He laughs, and tells me that isn’t saying much.

One day, I’m actually winning the game for once when he pulls a dirty trick on me. He suddenly clutches his chest and yells, “Doc!”

All the color drains from my face as I whip around to face him, “What?! Are you okay?!”

He laughs and, with the momentary distraction, defeats me easily. I sigh, relieved.

After a few weeks, a moment comes to pass one day when, for the first time, he’s vulnerable in front of me. I’m watching him play the game by himself when he turns and asks quietly, “Do you really think I’ll ever get this transplant?”

He’s a big guy but, in this moment, he seems so small. It’s easy for me to forget how young he is, especially since he’s always so confident and cocky when he’s gaming. His momentary vulnerability catches me off guard.

I do something I’ll regret for the rest of my life.

I brush off his fear.

“Pffft. Are you kidding me? Now win this game, it’s so close!”

I see him almost visibly flinch and retreat back into his shell. Just like that we are back to being gaming buddies.

But we were never just buddies, were we? I am his doctor. He is my patient.

And when he tried to talk to me about genuine fears, I brushed them aside.

A few days later, I pick up my sign-out sheet from the overnight, cross-covering resident. She seems sad. “I’m sorry,” she tells me, her eyes bloodshot and tired.

She says something about a code blue. Something about a death.

I can’t hear her. My heart is in my throat. I race up to his room.

It’s empty.

This doesn’t make any sense. I was just laughing with him about how well Snickers rhymes with knickers. We had just played a game together. He was going to get his transplant. He was doing so well.

This doesn’t make any sense. The empty room. The blank space on my census list. None of it. The rest of the day is a blur. I am numb to everything. I can’t summon any feelings, except disbelief. I am present but I am not there. Nothing makes sense.

On the train ride home that night, I find myself resenting the other passengers and their healthy cardiac output. How dare they take it for granted, looking at their phones, talking to each other, laughing, and living their ordinarily extraordinary lives.

How dare they.

Something innocuous sets me off. A Snickers bar in a gas station, of all the places.

When I get home, I collapse on my couch, not bothering to change out of my scrubs or take off my shoes. I fall asleep like that, without moving. My alarm wakes me up at 5 a.m. and I steel myself to go back to the hospital, to the new patient in his room. This is the discipline of the art, and today, I can’t stand it.

I don’t cry until many weeks later.

Something innocuous sets me off. A Snickers bar in a gas station, of all the places. I buy every last one they have, bags full of them. Then I sit in my car and grip the steering wheel until my knuckles turn white, and I cry.

And cry.

And cry.

“I’m trying to make you better. Learn from me!”

I know you were talking about a video game. But I also know your words will never leave me. I am so deeply sorry.

I hope someday I’ll see you again, in a place where the Wi-Fi is always great and all hearts beat strongly.

Sayed Tabatabai, MD, is a nephrologist in private practice, and a part-time writer primarily on Twitter @therealdoctort.

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